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INVESTIGATING CLINTON

U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White has taken just the right action in using her office to determine whether any connection exists between former President Clinton's pardon of a fugitive financier and contributions made by the man's former wife.

It's an unfortunate way for Clinton's post-presidential life to begin, not to mention Sen. Hillary Clinton's legislative career, but the former president has given the justice system little other choice. The appearance of impropriety is so rank, the questions have to be asked.

White, based in New York City, wants to find out if Clinton's decision to pardon Marc Rich was based on contributions made by Rich's ex-wife, Denise, to the Democratic Party ($1.1 million), to Hillary Clinton's Senate campaign ($109,000) and to the Clinton Presidential Library Fund ($450,000).

White's office indicted Rich in 1983 on charges of fraud, tax evasion and illegal trading with Iran. Instead of facing the charges, Rich fled to Switzerland. On Jan. 20, only hours before leaving office, Clinton pardoned him, along with 140 other people. Incredibly - and perhaps tellingly - no one from the administration consulted White before issuing the pardon, she said.

Clinton insists the pardon was proper, and free from the influence of contributions. Recent reports also suggest that former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak urged Clinton to issue the pardon, on the grounds that Rich had donated millions of dollars to Israeli charities and had passed important information to Israel intelligence over the years.

But then, why the secrecy? Why not consult with the prosecutors who had built the case against Rich? Why not cross the t's and dot the i's when the matter was so sensitive and involved people who had directly benefited the Clintons? The former president's political instincts are legendary; it is unlikely in the extreme that he simply blundered into this. The whole episode has an offensive odor.

Clinton says he will cooperate "with any appropriate inquiry." That's a good sign, though how good will depend on what the meaning of cooperate is. Clinton has shown himself to be a first-rate stonewaller when he wants to be. He needs to resist the temptation this time.

With the beginning of White's investigation, Congress should drop its parallel effort, at least for now. That goes for both chambers, but especially for the House, whose probe is being led by Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., and includes Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., active members of the Republican kook caucus.

The virulence of Burton, Barr and others like them made Clinton's pursuers look worse than him during the Lewinsky torture, and it will do the same to any dispassionate effort to get to the bottom of Rich's pardon. They have zero credibility, and if they don't have the sense to shut down their investigation, other Republicans should pressure them into it. This is an important matter that, for the moment, at least, should be attended to without the political baggage they carry.

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